WASHINGTON (CBSDC) – The top of the NBA draft board has been unsettled almost since it became clear this spring that Kentucky one-and-done big man Nerlens Noel wouldn’t be ready to return from knee surgery before Christmas.

Will Noel still go first overall to Cleveland in tonight’s draft or will the Cavaliers, as one report has it, shockingly elevate former Maryland sophomore Alex Len to the top of the heap because you can’t teach someone to become 7-foot-1?

In any case, the Wizards won’t have long to wait tonight to find out which two players will be gone before if it’s their turn to select third overall for the second straight year.

I’ve heard the argument that John Wall, the first overall choice in the 2010 draft, just hasn’t panned out so Washington should let him walk next summer when he’ll be a restricted free agent and pick Michigan’s Trey Burke now to run their offense. Not only does that set up an awkward 2013-14 situation at point guard, but there’s no denying that the Wizards were a much better team with Wall (24-25) than they were without him (5-28) last season. So unless Washington can trade Wall tonight for immediate help at a different position, drafting Burke doesn’t make sense to me.

If the Cavs pass on Noel and the Orlando Magic take, as rumored, forward Victor Oladipo, late of Indiana and DeMatha, at No. 2, then the Wizards will face an interesting choice.

They could opt for the 7-foot Noel because of his tremendous upside at age 18, knowing that both their leading big men, Nene and Emeka Okafor, will be 31 in September and have taken a combined 20 seasons of NBA pounding on their bodies. None of Washington’s 23-year-old backups in the paint — Kevin Seraphin, Chris Singleton and Jan Veseley – has done much to distinguish himself so far so adding a young big man who can produce now and start eventually has to be a priority.

“We’re going to take the best player that we feel with fit into what we’re trying to accomplish,” said Wizards general manager Ernie Grunfeld. “Our goal for next year is to make the playoffs. We want to build on what happened at the end of last year. We feel good about the chemistry that we’ve established. I think we have a solid core of players that we can build.”

Given that and their five straight seasons out of the playoffs, the Wizards should do what I advocated in this space five weeks ago: pick Georgetown’s Otto Porter, who has much more of an all-around game than last year’s surprisingly successful sharp-shooting small forward, Martell Webster.

UNLV’s Anthony Bennett is similar to Porter — the Big East’s Player of the Year as a sophomore in 2012-13 — but with one less year of college experience and no local following to help boost attendance at Verizon Center. That can’t be a non-factor for Wizards owner Ted Leonsis given his franchise’s 117-277 record the past five seasons and with the Redskins, National and Capitals all defending division champions.

Only Minnesota, Sacramento, Toronto have gone as long as Washington without reaching the NBA playoffs, but the Kings have their market to themselves and the Raptors don’t compete with an NFL franchise.

A starting lineup of Porter, Nene, Okafor, Wall and shooting guard Bradley Beal, whom Washington selected third overall last June, is playoff-worthy in the less-than-formidable – beyond the two-time defending NBA champion Miami Heat – in the Eastern Conference.

The Wizards have the salary cap space to re-sign Webster for instant offense a la Vinnie “Microwave” Johnson of Detroit’s title teams a generation ago. Bringing back reserve point guards A.J. Price and Garrett Temple will also be very affordable. Backup forward Trevor Booker is already under contract and Okafor and reserve small forward Trevor Ariza are expected to stay put.

Even after paying the No. 3 overall pick, the Wizards should also have the cap room to sign a quality free agent such as forwards Josh Smith, Al Jefferson, Mike Dunleavy, Jr., Andre Iguodala or J.J. Hickson or guards J.R. Smith, Devin Harris, Jose Calderon, J.J. Redick or Steve Blake.

One way or another, Washington’s outlook figures to be brighter after tonight’s draft and should be even more so when the free agent signing period begins next week.

David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin.


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